Guiding the planning, design and use of active learning classrooms

By: Gavan Watson & Natasha Kenny

Post 1 of 2

Dr. Natasha Kenny (University of Calgary) and I have collaborated on two posts focused on the planning, design and use of active learning classrooms. The development of these kind of learning spaces are a relatively recent development in Canadian Higher Education, with a majority of these classrooms renovated or built within the last ten years. In this first post, Natasha and I survey the literature describing just what we know about active learning classrooms and their reported impact on classroom teaching and student learning.

What are Active Learning Classrooms?

Most simplistically, active learning classrooms (ALC) are on-campus learning spaces intentionally designed to allow for the facilitation by instructors of a variety of active learning strategies.

While most research on the effects of active learning has occurred in the context of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, these classroom techniques have been shown to offer a variety of meaningful improvements in student learning (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al., 2020; Weir et al., 2019). Here, we draw on recent work of Driessen et al. (2020) to offer a definition of active learning, as a “…interactive and engaging [learning] process for students” implemented through a variety of classroom techniques that can include “metacognition, discussion [and] group work” (p. 6). Active learning researchers also foreground that many of the approaches used are student-centred (Kember, 1997), with a focus on students being offered agency or choice in what and how they learn (O’Neill & McMahon, 2005); put another way, students engaged in active learning are active (co-) creators of knowledge, rather than passive consumers.

Connections between classrooms and learning

While outside the scope of this series of posts to provide a detailed overview of the literature on the relationship between classroom spaces and learning, work in this area is clear: spaces that support teaching and learning are not neutral. Not neutral in the sense that the design elements of classroom spaces can help or hinder the adoption of approaches to teaching. Monahan (2002) writes that classroom design communicates a hidden curriculum (the implicit messages about the kinds of learning possible in a space), with classroom spaces built along a continuum of discipline and autonomy. Built pedagogy — “the ability of space to define how one teaches” (Oblinger, 2006)—asks us to reconsider the neutrality of space, and instead think of how spaces combine with beliefs and practice to create place. Monahan (2002) further defines built pedagogy as the “architectural embodiments of our educational philosophies” (p.5). Likewise, Ellis and Goodyear (2016) state that the “connections between place and learning can be subtle and powerful” (p. 150), and that space both communicates and influences “how knowledge is discovered, distilled and disseminated” (p. 165). Classrooms become places where implicit approaches to teaching and learning and the values underlying are made visible (for more on this, outside the context of ALCs but within the context of higher education, see Brown, 2019).

Figure 1: Panoramic photograph of an Active Learning Classroom at Western University (London, Canada).

In this regard then, ALCs are not only purpose-built spaces for the facilitation of active learning strategies, but through their design can allow students act as co-creators of knowledge, when those students are engaged in student-centred pedagogies.

Active learning classrooms versus traditional classrooms

ALCs are often described in opposition to so-called “traditional classrooms,” the learning spaces more typically found across higher education campuses. Traditional classrooms have been defined by their fixity: shared characteristics of fixed seating, arranged in rows, with an instructor located at the front of the classroom, often found behind a podium. Built, pedagogically speaking, for the direct transmission of knowledge through techniques like lecturing, researchers have noted that despite this fixed nature, active learning can still be facilitated in these traditional classrooms (Lasry et al., 2014); it is just that active learning is often adjunct to the underlying assumptions around what teaching and learning looks like.

Traditional classrooms have been defined by their fixity…built, pedagogically speaking, for the direct transmission of knowledge through techniques like lecturing.

ALC’s received increased attention in higher education research in the late 2000’s and early 2010s (Brooks, 2012; Walker et al., 2011; Whiteside et al., 2010a), and since then so-called active learning classrooms (of various designs) have been introduced to Universities and Colleges across the United States and Canada.

How active learning classrooms differ

So then, what makes ALCs different from traditional classrooms? Three US-based classroom projects appear to set an initial direction for the design of ALC spaces (Hyun et al., 2017): the University of Minnesota’s Active Learning Classrooms (Whiteside et al., 2010b), MIT’s Technology-Enabled Active Learning, or TEAL classrooms (Dori & Belcher, 2005), and classrooms designed for North Carolina State’s Student-Centred Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (or SCALE-UP) (Gaffney et al., 2008). Interactivity and technology, in opposition to fixity, underpin these designs, and publications on the outcomes fostered by learning in these classrooms share results of projects undertaken to improve the quality of learning focused on enhancing interaction through the configuration of learning spaces.

Finkelstein et al., (2016) and Finkelstein and Winer (2020) have also described and researched active learning classrooms within the Canadian context highlighting practical features of these spaces centred the following principles: academic challenge, learning with peers, experiences with faculty, campus environment and high-impact practices. These principles are directly connected to themes communicated and assessed through the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE). The authors summarize that learning spaces should:

  • allow students to actively engage with content and include a range of technologies that support multiple modes of teaching and learning.
  • provide features that permit students to work both individually and in collaboration with one another.
  • facilitate communication and interaction between students and faculty.
  • be consistent with the university’s culture and priorities as reflected in the campus master plan, follow university design standards, and be designed with future flexibility in mind.
  • exist within a larger a larger campus context; there should be an ease of transition between spaces so as to better support high-impact practice inside and outside the classroom (Finkelstein et al., 2016, p. 29).

Hallmarks of design

Interactivity, between classroom peers, between students and course material and between the instructor and students, is a focus of ALCs. Now, over ten years after the initial development of these classrooms, hallmarks of ALCs’ designs include:

  1. students sitting in small groups, arranged at tables, with learners facing each other;
  2. a lack of a “front” of the room, achieved in part by:
    1. the lack of a fixed podium;
    2. multiple screens and / or monitors; and
    3. whiteboards or writable walls situated around the room, easily accessible to all learners; and
  3. flexible furniture arrangements, most notably achieved through wheels on chairs, and when possible, wheels on tables.

Interactivity, between classroom peers, between students and course material and between the instructor and students, is a focus of Active Learning Classrooms.

Technology, when included in these spaces, affords students enhanced capacity to work together by facilitating the ease of information sharing (Stalp & Hill, 2019), such as through the sharing of student work via the multiple classroom monitors. Less visible, consideration is also given to acoustics, lighting and air quality (Finkelstein & Winer, 2020) in the design of these rooms.

Floor plan view of an active learning classroom. 7 pods with seating for six are spread around a square-shaped room. Each pod has a short-throw interactive projector. The room is surrounded in whiteboards. An instructor station is featured in the middle of the room.
Figure 2: Floor plan of an active learning classroom at Western University (London, Canada), illustrating design principles of an active learning classroom.

While technology plays a role in supporting the instructional efforts in these spaces, it has also been shown that in some cases ALCs do not significantly build students’ technological skills (Stalp & Hill, 2019). Research, however, suggests that within the limits of the respective projects, that ALCs exert “an independent and positive effect on student learning” (Brooks, 2012), and when compared with learning in traditional classroom, student self-rated satisfaction with learning increased, with students more satisfied with group work processes (Hyun et al., 2017). Peer connections developed in ALCs are perceived as meaningful and important (Stalp & Hill, 2019), where students and instructors develop a so-called “educational alliance” through the reduction of psychological distance between individuals in the class seemingly afforded by the classroom design (Baepler & Walker, 2014).

Importantly, however, other findings suggest that it is the facilitation of active learning that has a significant impact on student learning, independent of classroom design itself (Lasry et al., 2014). This suggests that if an instructor can successfully facilitate active learning in a traditional classroom, student outcomes will improve. What seems to change in ALCs, importantly, is the perception on the part of instructors that facilitating active learning is easier in these purpose-built spaces (Holec & Marynowski, 2020). This is supported by classroom observations in ALCs, where “classroom discussion and use of the board occurred more frequently in the ALC while the instructor moved about the room and consulted with students more in the ALC space.” (Brooks, 2012).

What have we learned about active learning classrooms?

We have learned, most fundamentally, that active learning classrooms support student-centred approaches to learning (Holec and Marynowski, 2020; Karipponaon et al, 2018; Eliis and Goodyear, 2016). What has also become clear is that we must see these spaces as a critical component of our teaching and learning community. Classrooms can be viewed as one of the most important artifacts that communicate the teaching and learning approaches that are most valued within our institutions: they represent an institution’s philosophy of teaching and learning. Holec and Marynowski (2020) identify that we can no longer see our learning environments as separate from our pedagogy. In short, we have learned that the planning, design, and use of learning spaces must be seen as a critical component of our institutional teaching and learning cultures, communities and practices.

Classrooms can be viewed as one of the most important artifacts that communicate the teaching and learning approaches that are most valued within our institutions: they represent an institution’s philosophy of teaching and learning.

Given what we have learned about ALCs, how then do we move forward to make the connection between space and learning more broadly visible within the context of our academic communities? We explore these questions in our second post on the topic.


Baepler, P., & Walker, J. D. (2014). Active Learning Classrooms and Educational Alliances: Changing Relationships to Improve Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 137, 27–40.

Brooks, D. C. (2012). Space and Consequences: The Impact of Different Formal Learning Spaces on Instructor and Student Behavior. Journal of Learning Spaces, 1(2).

Brown, K. (2019). Creating Culturally Safe Learning Spaces and Indigenizing Higher Education. Journal of Learning Spaces, 8(2), 57–65.

Dori, Y. J., & Belcher, J. (2005). How Does Technology-Enabled Active Learning Affect Undergraduate Students Understanding of Electromagnetism Concepts? The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(2), 243–279.

Driessen, E. P., Knight, J. K., Smith, M. K., & Ballen, C. J. (2020). Demystifying the Meaning of Active Learning in Postsecondary Biology Education. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19(4), ar52.

Finkelstein, A., & Winer, L. (2020). Active learning anywhere: A principled-based approach to designing learning spaces. In S. Hoidn & M. Klemenčič (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Student-Centered Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (pp. 327–344).

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Gaffney, Richards, E., Kustusch, E., Ding, M. B., & Beichner, L. (2008). Scaling Up Education Reform. Journal of College Science Teaching, 37(5), 48–53.

Holec, V., & Marynowski, R. (2020). Does it Matter Where You Teach? Insights from a Quasi-Experimental Study on Student Engagement in an Active Learning Classroom. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 8(2), 140–164.

Hyun, J., Ediger, R., & Lee, D. (2017). Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(1), 108–118.

Kember, D. (1997). A reconceptualization of the research into University Academics’ conceptions of teaching. Learning and Instruction, 7(3), 255–275.

Lasry, N., Charles, E., & Whittaker, C. (2014). When teacher-centered instructors are assigned to student-centered classrooms. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 10(1), 010116–010119.

Monahan, T. (2002). Flexible Space & Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT Embodiments. Inventio, 4(1), 1–19.
Oblinger, D. (2006). Space as Change Agent. In D. G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning Spaces (pp. 1–4). EDUCAUSE.

O’Neill, G., & McMahon, T. (2005). Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers? In G.

O’Neill, S. Moore, & B. McMullin (Eds.), Emerging issues in the practice of University Learning and Teaching (pp. 27–36).

Stalp, M. C., & Hill, S. E. (2019). The Expectations of Adulting: Developing Soft Skills through Active Learning Classrooms. Journal of Learning Spaces, 8(2), 25–40.

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., … Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201916903.

Walker, J. D., Brooks, D. C., & Baepler, P. (2011). Pedagogy and space: Empirical research on new learning environments. Educause Quarterly, 34(4).

Weir, L. K., Barker, M. K., McDonnell, L. M., Schimpf, N. G., Rodela, T. M., & Schulte, P. M. (2019). Small changes, big gains: A curriculum-wide study of teaching practices and student learning in undergraduate biology. PloS One, 14(8), e0220900-16.

Whiteside, A., Brooks, D. C., & Walker, J. D. (2010a). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on learning environments. Educause Quarterly, 2, 5–16.

Whiteside, A., Brooks, D. C., & Walker, J. D. (2010b). Making the Case for Space: Three Years of Empirical Research on Learning Environments. Educause Quarterly, 33(3), 11.